Children among more than 40,000 displaced persons in the Rukban camp, southeast Syria (UNHCR)
Hundreds of residents have finally left the Rukban camp for displaced persons in southeast Syria, amid a months-long Assad regime siege and Russian pressure.
A local aid worker and citizen journalist Omar al-Homsi said about 500 people left on April 4 for regime territory. Another 400 departed on Sunday, bringing to total to 1,660 since March 24, according to the UN.
More than 40,000 displaced Syrians live in Rukban, in a barren area near the Jordanian border. The Assad regime cut routes into the camp last autumn, exacerbating shortages of food, medicine, and essential supplies. Damascus has only allowed two aid convoys since January 2018.
Scores of residents, many of them children, have died from the lack of food and milk and inadequate medical care. The UN has warned that thousands of children are at risk.
Russia has supported the siege with propaganda, blaming “militants” and the US military — Rukban is within a 55-km security zone around the US base at Tanf in eastern Syria — for the deprivation and deaths. Moscow has stepped up demands for the “liquidation” of the base with return of residents to home areas which they fled in 2015, amid Islamic State attacks.
More than 90% of residents say they wish to leave Rukban, but in a February survey by UN staff, all said they feared detentions and forced conscription and were uncertain about the loss of property and lack of personal documents.
Speaking on Sunday during talks in Jordan, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said, “According to UN observers who visited the camp, most of the displaced people there want to return home, including to territories controlled by the Syrian government.” He did not mention that residents said they would not actually return because of the fear of harassment and imprisonment.
“We Have No Other Choice”
Commenting about last week’s departures, resident Khalid Abo Ali said:
We have no other choice but to return home where the regime is in control of our lives. We left because we feared for our lives and we cannot go back.
The suffering that we are enduring in the camp is pushing us to leave.
In a letter to the UN, residents accused the international community of failing to act over their plight: “The silence by the international community is encouraging the regime’s actions and supports the blockade on us. We consider you a partner in these atrocities.”
Russia organized two military checkpoints for departures in February, but no residents showed up. “Green buses” for removals did not reach Rukban amid protests, with Moscow insisting that the US had blocked transport.
Russian and regime officials have held meetings with Jordanian counterparts, Rukban elders, and UN staff to press for the dissolution of the camp. The US military has declined to attend.
Assad regime media have framed the return of “tens of families” with the assertion that the departed need healthcare because of a siege which was imposed not by the regime, but “by the US occupying troops and their mercenary terrorists”.